Trenton's very own punk rock landmark City Gardens may be gone, but it is far from forgotten. And the people who made the club famous,Aeisome might say infamous,Aeiare going to do it all over again.
City Gardens opened on Calhoun Street in 1980 and quickly became a nightclub legend. The club hosted performances by Nirvana, REM and the Beastie Boys, in addition to hundreds,Aeiif not thousands,Aeiof other cutting-edge bands. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Ramones played the club over 25 times during their career! It was also well-known for its weekly Thursday 90-c Dance Night, which regularly drew over 500 people. Although the club had a strong following, in the early 90's it began to fade for myriad reasons, and it finally closed its doors in 2000.
And on Saturday, November 19th from 7-11pm, it will be City Gardens 2005! Music pioneer, DJ and show promoter Randy Now is staging a reunion for all those who worked, played or attended shows at City Gardens, as well as for those who just wish they had. He will be spinning music from 80's & 90's, and patrons are expected to burn up the dance floor like the last 20 years never happened.
The event will recreate the feel of the old City Gardens by bringing in familiar faces, including bartenders, DJ's,Aeieven the same doormen! In addition to Randy Now, City Gardens' alumnus DJ Carlos (of Thursday Dance Night fame) will also be spinning. This will be the first time in over 10 years that either DJ has made a live appearance. To make the setting complete, JOLT cola will be served along with a Trenton delicacy known only as "Tutdogs."
Although there have been reunions for City Gardens before, the familiar face of Randy Now has been missing. "It was kind of like going to Disney World and not seeing Mickey Mouse," said Randy Now. Randy had disappeared from the scene due to a case of vertigo for the last six years.
After having surgery to correct the vertigo, Randy is ready to become a player in the local music scene again. "I'm just excited to do this," said Randy. "I finally feel human again. I may start booking some bands again."
The legend of City Gardens grew thanks to a plethora of bootleg shows that continue to float around. This was the place to see emerging artists like the Replacements, Green Day, Nirvana, REM, Sonic Youth, Ween and the Dead Kennedys. It was also a place for local acts to get the exposure they needed to go to the next level. Bands would get the chance to open for national acts and hundreds of people. The club had a legal capacity of 950 which was larger than most of the similar venues around the state. If you got an opening spot at City Gardens, people would know who your band was the next day. And the club basically did it to help the bands rather than the other way around. Nobody was forced to sell tickets. It was their job to put on a great show and if they did they would be asked back.
"We never made bands sell tickets," explained Randy. "In the worst case they would get gas money or free beer or something, but we never made them sell tickets. I just never believed in that philosophy."
It's a period of time in Trenton music history that may never be realized again. Lawsuits, changes to DWI laws, and the introduction of Katmandu all signaled the end for City Gardens. The club stopped hosting live bands in the mid '90s and closed a few years later. Since that time, many clubs have tried to emulate the success of City Gardens but none have been able to.
"Any time a new club opens in Trenton they all put in the newspaper 'We're going to be just like City Gardens'," said Randy. "Even City Gardens wouldn't make it now I don't think with all of the laws and the rules. It was just too many lawsuits. Every time we turned around there was another certified letter in the mail and we knew what it was."
Many of the lawsuits stemmed from City Gardens being an all-ages show. That's one reason there are so few places who hold all-ages shows these days - it's just too much of a legal risk.
Randy says that some of his favorite shows include UB40, Sparks, The Dead Kennedys, Ramones, and New Order. "I'm a big music fan," he said. "I loved Sparks from California. They had just played on Saturday Night Live and we had them the following Wednesday. Now I'm thinking this is going to be a home run, but it did about 50 people. I still loved the show. When I did REM at City Gardens 40 people paid and I've met 500 people who were at the show!" he laughs.
Both DJs are expected to spin the same tunes they would have back in the day. For Randy Now that means bands like early B-52s, The Talking Heads, The Clash and The Buzzcocks for his first set. DJ Carlos will lean towards the industrial sounds of the 1986-1988 era, and then Randy Now will be back to do songs from 1986-1996. That set should include artists like They Might Be Giants and Rage Against The Machine.
The event will be held on Saturday, November 19th from 7-11pm at the Hope Hose Fire House at 150 W. Burlington Street in Bordentown. Admission will be $5. BYOB.
Rumors are flying about a potential special guest or two, but you'll have to be there to find out who they're thinking may show up.
If you're missing the days when you used to stage dive or miss the era when people still moshed, you'll want to go to this reunion and step back in time for a few hours. They'll never be another City Gardens, but with Randy back on the scene things just got a little more interesting.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.